From the playing fields of Manuel High School the view was screened to a faint suggestion of mountains for days in July. I looked it up. “Dateline Denver: haze caused by fires out west.” The headline exasperated me: I thought I was out west.
Looking through my digital Denver Post, I found a page four article about fires in the State of Washington. Like all positions, what’s “out west” is a matter of perspective. I think of Washington as forever raining, but not this summer. Four hundred square miles of land, over 100 homes, had been incinerated in dry, windy conditions, the worst ever recorded there. We’ve had many such shattered records lately.
Here in Denver’s Whittier neighborhood, I try to walk before it gets hot, with young couples pushing strollers, jogging with their dogs. It’s Wednesday morning, after eight. I guess no one goes to work early anymore. These young people are mysterious to me. I don’t know how they make a living, what impels them to pay so much for old houses realtors couldn’t give away twenty years ago.
I pass a couple, her pregnant belly straining tautly against her t-shirt, his tattoos elaborating his arms, their boxer beside them. Thirty years ago, this neighborhood was peppered with black and Latino children. Then for a long time, there were few children. Now we’ll have a bumper crop again, tow-haired babies this time. Such are the changes you see if you stay in one place long enough.
Coming up behind a blond boy of five or six, sauntering slowly with his slow spaniel, I call hello, not to scare him. “What a sweet puppy,” I say. “She’s not a puppy,” he corrects earnestly. “She’s old, but,” and I hear his parents explaining, “she’s very active for an old dog.”
This will be his first death, I think, moving on. When the cat I had at his age died, I was thirteen, sobbed and sobbed. Even now, the memory of finding my cat stretched out under the porch, cold, is vivid in my mind. And yet, that vision’s sadness has worn to a wafer, its recollection now a gateway to smiling: that cat woke me to feed him in the morning, purring loudly against my cheek. And if I didn’t stir soon enough, I’d get a gentle bite on the nose. Pets are often the first to teach us about death, about loss. However it comes to us, it’s a knowledge we need to acquire.
Crossing Manual’s parking lot late in July, I was startled to see the cheerleaders on the football field. A dozen girls with their energetic young teacher—bless young teachers who take on these extra tasks!—worked through stretches, squats, high kicks. If the cheerleaders have begun their early morning practice, football players can’t be far behind, and it must be only weeks until…
A moment of panic tightened my gut, the attack I experienced for the start of every school year, the panic teachers suffer. This is my fifth year retired, but I’ve agreed to teach a class this fall. That’s all it took for the feeling to return, the feeling that summer’s slipping away, life is slipping away. I started writing this in July and now it’s August. August!
For a week of July mornings, the Front Range was made dim by the residue of forests, ashy bits of bedrooms. Generated by trees, family photos, melted laptops, a wisp of favorite sweater, that smoke touched us here. Losses we’ll never to able to name waft through our air. Change we cannot control washes around us like a flood, some of it causing us to clap happily, some of it dismaying.
On this August morning walk, a representative of the new life passed me, a grinning young father with a baby strapped to his chest and two rescue greyhounds on leash. I observed that he had his hands full.
“Yes,” he replied proudly. “I do.”
The day was beginning to heat up, and heading home, I saw a bright yellow and black swallowtail butterfly flitting through red hollyhocks.